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In this lesson, students will learn about the labor union movement in the U.S., specifically the union influence on the cotton mills of North and South Carolina. Students will listen to oral histories from former mill workers explaining why they did or did not become involved with the union and then will be asked to make that decision themselves. They will provide an explanation for their decision by giving a speech to convince their classmates to join or not join, drawing on the oral histories and what they’ve learned.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • know about the labor union movement in the United States, and assess its impact on the workers in the cotton mills of North and South Carolina.
  • recognize the value of primary sources such as oral histories in studying and understanding our history.
  • write and deliver a persuasive speech and provide support for their argument with information from their research.

Teacher planning

Materials needed

Time required for lesson

Four 50-min class periods or two to three 90-min block periods


Students should have basic background knowledge of the Industrial Revolution and the social and economic movement from rural agriculture to urban industry. Teachers may also want to briefly introduce the basics of the labor movement in the U.S.

Activity one: Unions in the mills

  1. Introduce the topic of the textile industry in the South and its importance in rebuilding the Southern economy after the Civil War. If students haven’t learned about the labor movement, teachers can also provide a brief introduction to its history in the U.S. — great detail isn’t needed for this lesson, just the basics.
  2. Explain the history of the union movement in the cotton mills of the Carolinas. Teachers may want to read this summary or provide it for students in a handout:

    The history of unions in the Southern textile mills is marked by tension and violence between workers, union organizers, and mill owners. After World War I, the wartime demands for cotton dropped and mill owners scrambled to make up for this loss of profit. Dramatically dropping workers’ wages led to widespread protest, so owners turned to other, more subtle, methods to increase profits. They installed new textile technology, replacing many workers with machines, and sped up the machines. They instituted a third shift, keeping their mills open 24 hours a day. They required workers to be responsible for more machines, frowned on lunch or bathroom breaks, and forbade socializing in the mills. They changed many workers’ schedules from full-time positions with an hourly salary to “piecework” rates, meaning the workers were paid on a part-time basis according to the amount of cotton they processed. This move to piecework rates always led to a drop in salary, but workers had little choice in the decision. If they complained, they could easily be fired, and finding work at another mill was challenging due to the network of mill owners who communicated the names of “difficult” workers.

    All of these tactics employed by the mill owners throughout the 1920’s were called “the stretch-out” by employees, meaning that the owners tried to make more money by stretching out the resources provided by workers. Owners wanted to keep up profits while employing fewer people at lower wages, and providing fewer benefits for the workers they did keep.

    Workers unhappy with these practices began to practice spontaneous “walk-outs” where the employees of a mill all left the mill at the same time and refused to return until conditions were improved. Not many of these walk outs were successful — workers often went back to work after only a few days off the job because they needed the wages so badly. Northern labor unions took notice of these walk-outs, and began trying to organize in the Southern mills. The union organizers were seen as a threat to profits by mill owners, and they worked to keep the unions out of the mills.

    The conflicts between unions and owners sometimes led to violence. Six strikers were killed at three mills in Marion, North Carolina by federal troops called in to stop the strikes in 1929. An especially bloody conflict took place at Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, which had the highest number of cotton spindles of any county in the South. The National Textile Workers’ Union built on Loray workers’ dissatisfaction to encourage a strike on April 1, 1929. The town’s police chief and Ella May Wiggins, a striker and union balladeer, were both killed in the chaotic conflict following the strike.

  3. Lead a class discussion on the union movement in the mills. Some possible prompts include:
    • Was the union movement beneficial for the mill workers? How did it help or harm them?
    • Do you think the workers’ spontaneous walk-outs would have eventually forced the mill owners to change conditions? Was some organization required for change to happen?

Activity two: Listening to the oral histories

  1. Introduce the concept of oral histories and discuss their value as we study important events. Mention that oral histories provide a chance for the “regular person” to record his or her experiences, not just the well-known or famous people often recorded in written history. Ask students to come up with more reasons we should value oral histories — such as allowing minority groups to record and publicize their experiences, being able to more vividly picture the past, making connections between generations, passing on the art of storytelling, etc. (For more about oral histories, see the LEARN NC guide, “Oral History in the Classroom.”)
  2. Hand out the oral history transcripts to students.
  3. Alice P. Evitt oral history
    • Read this introduction to the excerpt to students:
      Alice P. Evitt was born in 1898 and began working at the cotton mills near Charlotte, North Carolina in 1910 when she was 12 years old. She worked 12 hours a day, every day except Sunday, and earned 25 cents a day for her work. Here, Ms. Evitt describes her part in the general textile strike of 1934, during which mill workers all over the South participated in walk-outs to improve working conditions. She describes the strike at her mill as having a festive atmosphere — the workers gathered outside to talk and eat hot dogs while union organizers negotiated with management. Listen to see if their strike had the desired effect.

    • Play the Alice P. Evitt oral history excerpt. (2 min 49 sec)

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      Download recording (Right-click or option-click) | About the recording

      Discussion questions:

      • Why did Ms. Evitt join the union?
      • Did the strike improve things for the workers? According to Ms. Evitt, why didn’t the workers keep striking until their demands were met?
  4. Ila Hartsell Dodson oral history
    • Read this introduction to the excerpt to students:
      Ila Hartsell Dodson was born in 1907 in South Carolina and began working in the Brandon Cotton Mill at age 14. Her mother, father, and all of her nine siblings worked for various cotton mills in North and South Carolina. She met her husband working in the mill, and spent all of her young life living in mill villages. She stopped working in the mills in the 1930s to take care of her children. In this excerpt, Ms. Dodson tells of the “Flying Squadron” — the nickname for a group of strikers who traveled to mills across the South in order to plant the seeds of the union movement. The group would stop work at the mills and encourage the workers to strike. Some former mill employees remember the Flying Squadron using sticks and bats to break into the mills and destroy machines. Listen to see if Ms. Dodson approved of those striking tactics.
    • Play the Ila Hartsell Dodson oral history excerpt. (1 min 48 sec)

      Please upgrade your Flash Player and/or enable JavaScript in your browser to listen to this audio file.

      Download recording (Right-click or option-click) | About the recording

      Discussion questions:

      • How does Ms. Dodson’s and her husband’s opinion of the union movement differ from Ms. Evitt’s? Did they join the union? Why not?
      • What sort of “trouble” do you think Ms. Dodson worried about as a result of joining the union? (Here, you or students might mention possible loss of a job and wages, trouble finding jobs at other mills, fighting or other violence, disruption of the workplace and community, distrust of the union organizers, or tension between the employees and their supervisors.)
  5. Eva B. Hopkins oral history
    • Read this introduction to the excerpt to students:
      Eva B. Hopkins was born in 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina and began working in Mercury Cotton Mill full time in 1932 at age 14 to support her father, who had tuberculosis. Like many mill workers, her family had left their small farm in the mountains of North Carolina to try their hand at making a better living in the cotton mills. In this excerpt, Ms. Hopkins describes the same general textile strike of 1934 that Ms. Evitt spoke of. At the Mercury Mill, workers struck for six weeks, but despite their efforts, there were no changes in the working conditions.
    • Play the Eva B. Hopkins oral history excerpt. (3 min 2 sec)

      Please upgrade your Flash Player and/or enable JavaScript in your browser to listen to this audio file.

      Download recording (Right-click or option-click) | About the recording

      Discussion questions:

      • Was Ms. Hopkins in favor of the union?
      • What benefits did she think may have come from the union’s strike? Did those benefits become a reality?
      • How was Ms. Hopkins’ experience similar to Ms. Evitt’s?

Activity three: Preparing labor union speeches

  1. You may want to briefly remind students of what they heard in the oral histories, or have the students summarize them out loud.
  2. As a class, list the potential benefits for workers of having a union. Some ideas may be: strength in numbers, having an organized group so everyone is united in one effort, having someone to advocate for the workers against the desires of management, and being able to make demands to improve wages and working conditions.
  3. Now list the potential problems or hazards of having a union for workers. Some possible ideas include: the threat of losing your job and wages if management retaliates, the system of “blackballing” workers who were involved in the union, the possibility of violence, the disruption and tension in the workplace, and possibility of corrupt or incompetent union organizers.
  4. Divide students into small groups of four to five students. These groups should consist of students with different strengths — verbal, written, organizational, etc. Give the students the following roles in their groups, or allow them to self-assign roles:
    • Speechwriter(s) — one to two students
    • Speaker(s) — one to two students
    • Editor — one student
  5. Explain that students will be delivering a speech either for or against labor unions in the cotton mills. Allow time to begin brainstorming their speeches. Make sure that there are approximately equal numbers of groups for and against labor unions. You may want to give students an additional class period to work in groups to finish the speeches.
  6. As a group, students should brainstorm reasons to support their argument. The speechwriter(s) will organize these arguments into a logical order and write an outline for the group’s speech. The speaker(s) should practice the speech, while the editor will review and revise the speech, clarifying any points that are confusing or need more support.

Activity four: Presenting labor union speeches

  • Groups present their speeches to the class.
  • Discuss whether students’ opinions about labor unions have changed after hearing the speeches and oral histories.


Students will craft a speech either for or against organizing a labor union. They should present as if they are trying to persuade fellow workers in a cotton mill. Each group should use points made or examples from the oral histories, as well as their own opinions, in their speeches.

Supplemental information

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • History/Social Studies

        • Grades 11-12
          • 11-12.LH.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • United States History II

        • USH.H.1 Apply the four interconnected dimensions of historical thinking to the United States History Essential Standards in order to understand the creation and development of the United States over time. USH.H.1.1 Use Chronological thinking to: Identify the...
        • USH.H.4 Analyze how conflict and compromise have shaped politics, economics and culture in the United States. USH.H.4.1 Analyze the political issues and conflicts that impacted the United States since Reconstruction and the compromises that resulted (e.g.,...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 11–12 — United States History

  • Goal 5: Becoming an Industrial Society (1877-1900) - The learner will describe innovations in technology and business practices and assess their impact on economic, political, and social life in America.
    • Objective 5.03: Assess the impact of labor unions on industry and the lives of workers.